BIATF officials seem blindsided by Duterte announcement allowing casinos in Boracay

Boracay Island, Aklan

OFFICIALS of the former Boracay Inter-Agency Task Force (BIATF) appeared to have been blindsided by the recent announcement of President Duterte to allow the opening of a casino in Boracay Island.

One BIATF source said he didn’t want to comment on the issue because, “That’s a decision made by the highest official of the land.”  Pressed if BIATF officials were aware about policy change prior to Duterte’s announcement last August 26, the source said in a mix of English and Filipino, “No. It was an unexpected pronouncement.”

In a joint news statement late Monday, the BIATF said, “In line with the President’s latest pronouncement that casinos will now be allowed to operate in Boracay Island to augment government funds, [we] will carry out the necessary steps towards this direction.”

The group added, it “will ensure that the operations of casinos, as it is with other business establishments in Boracay, will be in accordance with existing laws, and that each line agency will continue carrying out their respective mandates with the goal of ensuring the environmental sustainability of the island.”

It also said, “All businesses are reminded to submit to the requirements and accreditation processes, as the BIATF will practice due diligence to ensure that only those who are compliant will be issued the necessary permits.”

The latest policy paves the way for the reopening of casinos in  Movenpick Resort & Spa (Alpha Allied Holdings Ltd.), Crown Regency Resort and Convention Center, and Paradise Garden Resort Hotel and Convention Center, as well as those in development such as Leisure and Resorts World Corp. in partnership with Galaxy Entertainment of Macau, Alliance Global Inc. in Savoy Hotel, and Hotel Soffia owner Archibald Po.

Island cleanup for naught?

Jose C. Clemente III, president to Rajah Tours Philippines, which sells Boracay travel and tour packages to his foreign clients, was against casinos on the island as well: “Why build casinos when most players stay indoor most of the time anyway? As we have seen, gambling junkets do not usually include families.”

He added, “Sustainability was a problem that was meant to be addressed during Boracay’s initial closure in 2018. Attention was given to sanitation as well as carrying capacity. With the possible entry of more establishments, all of the efforts to clean the island may be for naught. We all know that casinos need a mass volume of players to be viable. Having casinos may mean the influx of more people on the island which leads to environmental degradation.”

He pointed out there were other places “where casinos could be set up and would be able to handle the influx of junkets and gamblers. There is Clark, Subic, Cebu and others that can generate probably even more gambling revenues due to larger carrying capacities. Why put it on a small island?” Island residents and business owners are also opposed to the new policy. (See, “Talk of casino spurs alarm: Will Boracay be gaming paradise?” in the BusinessMirror, August 30, 2021.)

Environment Underscretary Benny Antiporda said on Monday, however, that BIATF’s efforts to clean up and put order in Boracay weren’t wasted, despite the new casino policy. “Hindi naman! Non-negotiable yung environmental sustainability ng Boracay [Not at all. Boracay’s environmental sustainability is non-negotiable].”

Back to square one

The BIATF, created in 2018 to oversee the rehabilitation of the world famous island, was chaired by Environment Secretary Roy A. Cimatu, and co-chaired by Interior Secretary Eduardo M. Año and Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo Puyat. Its term expired in May this year.

In a news statement published by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources on its web site, Cimatu in 2018 held firmly against casinos on the island. “Now that the island’s waters and beaches are back to their pristine condition, we would rather that true nature lovers come and enjoy them…. Boracay already has enough hotel rooms. Adding more and filling these with guests will again lead to more trash and more wastewater. Then, we’re back to square one.”

Prior to its closure from April 26 to October 25, 2018, Boracay attracted close to 2 million visitors, half of whom were foreigners. The pandemic interrupted the island’s recovery and is currently under moderate enhanced community quarantine due to the increasing Covid cases in mainland Aklan. It has yet to regain enough tourists to support its economy, leading to the closure of a number of businesses, after a series of starts and stops in accepting domestic travelers from Metro Manila.

Image credits: Stella Arnaldo

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